It is, perhaps, unsurprising that it has been difficult to find information about a man called John Smith. It's known that he was born in Walsuton, Cambridgeshire and that his mother's name was Amelia. In the early 1920s, when the War Graves Commission collated it's casualty information, she was living at 3 Daisy Street, off Wellington Road South, Stockport. She was listed as John's next of kin which is unusual, as there is a record that, in the late autumn of1909, he had married Christiana Taylor in the Stockport area. Perhaps she had also died by that time.
It's not known when John joined the army, but he originally joined the Army Veterinary Corps (service number SE/7785) and went on active service with them. Similarly, it is not known when he transferred to the Devonshire Regiment. This information would be available from his Medal Index Card, available on-line at the National Archives (cost in 2005 - £3.50), but it is beyond the financial scope of this project to access the information.
The Third Battle of Ypres (often known as Passchendaele) had started on 31 July 1917 and, within hours, had turned into a long, hard, deadly slog northwards. There followed weeks of attacks through the rain and mud which today encapsulates many people's view of the Western Front. Nearly three months later, objectives scheduled to be captured within the first days were still in German hands. Yet another attack was to take place on 26th October and it would prove to be the worst day of the whole War for the 8th Devons.
Other units would lead that day's attack, with the 8th and 9th Devons following behind. They would overlap the first units and continue the attack east of the Belgian village of Gheluvelt. Both Battalions were seriously understrength as a result of casualties from previous fighting, but they moved into their positions near Zillebeke Lake on the evening of the 24th. "B" and "D" Companies would lead the Battalion, "C" just behind acting as "moppers up" and "D" in reserve ready to plug any gaps. In front of them, the enemy was holding it's line of pill-boxes and shell holes, consolidated into the trench system.
Zero was 5.40am on the 26th and the British artillery barrage opened on time, rolling across No Man's Land. The men of the 9th left their trenches, following closely behind the protection of the shelling. They were almost immediately hit by enfilade fire, but managed to press on.
Following shortly after, John and his comrades also suffered many casualties from the fire coming from their side and it was not long before they had caught up with the men of the 9th Battalion. The Regimental History records that some members of "B" Company made a gallant attempt to rush the pill-boxes, but all were hit except one sergeant who managed to get into a shell hole and continued firing. Another platoon was seen to reach Gheluvelt, but none ever returned. Captain Marshall led most of the Company across the Menin Road, capturing several pill-boxes and getting close to the village church. This group was quickly counter-atatcked and had to pull back to the road.
"D" Company had fared little better. It‘s attack had been broken up by the heavy fire and several men were now with Captain Marshall's party. 2nd Lieutenant Evans led his men towards Gheluvelt Chateau. Few survived and were able to fall back.
"A" and "C" Companies had also become disorganised and were mixed up with the leading Companies, but some men did capture a pill-box, but they were then successfully counterattacked. One platoon of "A" Company managed to get properly forward to meet the German counter-attack but lost heavily.
By 11am, both Battalions had been reduced to a series of small disorganised groups, with little in the way of command structure left. Even those who were left were now having difficulties as their rifles were clogged with mud. The situation was most serious and Battalion HQ now sent forward the few men remaining (such as signallers) and the Adjutant even burnt the codebook and his copy of the orders.
Fortunately, reinforcements of fresh troops from other units now arrived and held off the German attack. By 8pm, it was clear that any men from the 8th who had not returned to the British lines must be either dead or prisoner. Of the Battalion's 16 officers who had gone into battle, only one was unscathed. In all they had lost 127 men killed or missing and another 131 wounded.